Friday, October 23, 2015

The Problem with Cinderella

I recently got around to watching the new Disney live action Cinderella movie, starring Lily James as the title character. It was visually a fantastic movie, with lovely special effects, costumes, and sets. Plot-wise, it followed the Cinderella story that we all know by heart, thanks to the original 1950 Disney movie, with some additional elements thrown in to increase the role of the prince and to provide some political backstory. I enjoyed the movie well enough, but I was disappointed that in 2015, Disney is still perpetuating the passive Cinderella character, essentially a pushover who waits for others to decide the course of her life. The 2015 Cinderella is, in fact, worse than the 1950 one in that way, by constantly telling herself to be nice and good in the face of her stepmother's cruelty and abuse. After she's locked in the attic, she resigns herself to continuing to live under the status quo and does not fight for herself. And even, after finding the prince again and leaving her old life, telling Lady Tremaine she forgives her.

Now, I have no issue with being good-natured and kind-hearted. But that has to be balanced with independence, courage, and -- yes -- the ability to know when to stand up for oneself.

In the Grimm brothers' retelling of the tale, Cinderella is still a passive character, but (as was true with almost all their tales), the wicked are punished. The stepsisters are blinded by birds at the end of the tale. (Oddly enough, Cinderella's father was not dead in the original tale, but did not protect his daughter either. I think it's fitting that history has forgotten about him and let him mercifully pass away.)

I love fairy tales. I always have. I remember a big red hardback book with gorgeous illustrations that I'd read over and over as a child. My favorite stories were Donkeyskin and Cinderella. (As an aside, there seriously needs to be more retellings of Donkeyskin. That story is amazing. If anybody knows of another retelling other than Robin McKinley's Deerskin, please let me know!) And since then, I've read many Cinderella retellings and watched many movies based on the tale. I like most of them but my favorites are the ones which breathe life into Cinderella the character, giving her agency and intelligence and, importantly, a spine. And, I admit, I love the ones where the stepmother and stepsisters get their just desserts.

Below are some of my favorites:

Cinder by Marissa Meyer
The last book in this series is coming out next month and I am super excited because I have loved every single one so far. Cinder is the book that started it all. Cinder is a cyborg, and her glass slipper is her cybernetic foot. There's a handsome prince, a cruel stepmother and stepsister, a sympathetic stepsister, one kick-ass robotic sidekick, and an evil queen. Highly recommended.

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
I remember when this book first came out and I loved it to pieces (not literally, though--I treat my books very well). Ella is cursed at birth by a fairy with obedience, which just doesn't sit well with her naturally independent and free-willed spirit. Her stepmother and stepsisters are appropriately horrible, the prince suitably charming, but it's Ella who steals the show. She's smart and determined to do the right thing, even if it means losing her own happily ever after.

Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix
This one is a bit different. It starts after where Cinderella-the-fairy-tale ends. Ella finds palace life too restrictive and boring, and decides being a princess might not be for her.

The Stepsister Scheme by Jim C. Hines
I describe this book, and it's subsequent sequels, as the Brothers Grimm meet Charlie's Angels. Danielle (aka, Cinderella), finds out her new mother-in-law is the leader of a group of operatives, who just happen to be Snow White and Sleeping Beauty (but not as we know them), on missions of importance to the kingdom. Lots of action, some pretty dark moments, and some hints that Snow and Talia's fairy tale pasts were not so happily ever after.

Ever After
This is hands-down my favorite Cinderella movie. I remember watching this in theaters as a teenager, soaking up every wonderful moment like a sponge. It wasn't until I was older that I realized just how amazing the story was because this Cinderella movie broke from the passive heroine trope and made Danielle (Drew Barrymore) a fiercely independent and intelligent woman who went behind her stepmother's back to try and save her family's legacy and those she considered hers. And she didn't need a prince to ride in to save the day. No, she saved herself, grabbing a sword and demanding her own freedom. And, very importantly, the evil stepmother and the wicked stepsister got suitably humiliated and punished. If you haven't seen it, go watch it.

A Cinderella Story
Yes, I'm talking about the Hilary Duff movie. Yes, it's a teen movie. No, I'm not ashamed how much I love it. Sam (Duff) has spirit, hopes, and aspirations. She's intelligent, and it's shown that the only reason for her passivity is how downtrodden she is by being bullied at school and by her step-family. Once she is given something to fight for, however, she stops being a passive character in her own life and begins to assert her control.

I love that all the above stories show that being a good person, a good-natured person, even a nice person, is not mutually exclusive with being independent and strong. I really wish Disney had not regressed in message in its newest film and presented us with a new Cinderella: one who can proudly march forward into the future on her own two feet instead of sitting in a cold and empty attic, merely a plot-point for other people's stories, and a grossly ill-conceived parable for young girls.

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